Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Editorial: Landing project needs oversight

Commercial Appeal [link]
June 27, 2007

Although a group of protesters showed up at Memphis City Hall last week to raise questions about Beale Street Landing, the proverbial boat had already left the dock.

City Council members weren't inclined to change their minds about the $29 million project, which means construction work on the boat dock/park is expected to begin during the fiscal year that starts July 1.

After a lengthy debate about the project, council members decided it would be a good addition to the city's riverfront. But their involvement shouldn't end there.

If they want to avoid repeating some past mistakes or possibly making new ones, they need to take their oversight role regarding Beale Street Landing very seriously.

They should carefully scrutinize everything from the project's financing to the design plans to the progress of the actual construction work. They shouldn't be lulled into abdicating that responsibility in exchange for vague assurances that everything will work out well in the end.

That wasn't the case with the expansion of the Cook Convention Center, which cost more than twice as much as expected largely because there wasn't adequate oversight during that project's planning and design phase. Building and maintaining a facility that's subject to the Mississippi River's changing water levels won't be easy, either.

More oversight might have also helped with FedExForum, in which grant funds were improperly spent on a parking garage -- a mistake that eventually cost the city $6.3 million worth of federal funds for future projects. It's worth noting that the Beale Street Landing will rely heavily on state and federal dollars for its financing, too.

Closer oversight into a $1.5 billion bond deal involving the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division might have headed off some of the controversy about a transaction in which some of Mayor Willie Herenton's political supporters benefited financially. Who will profit from Beale Street Landing? That remains to be seen.

Closer oversight might also have been beneficial on the Memphis Networx deal, which now has some council members trying to figure out how $28.6 million of MLGW ratepayer money was spent on a financially unsuccessful telecom venture.

Maybe none of those types of issues will crop up with Beale Street Landing. Maybe new issues will.

But if council members want to avoid being blind-sided by whatever challenges might arise, they should stay engaged with this project.

Ignoring the details could allow the worst fears of the project's critics to come true.

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